I was listening to the new Arcade Fire album, Neon Bible, on the way into work. It's very strong and it's reassuring to find that there are young bands out there who are aware that you can still use pop music for all those dark, mischievous and subversive things that old fogies like me are always castigating all those other "eyes-on-the-prize" younger bands for *not* doing. It's serious, epic music that is both sermon and rapture at once and it seems to fit very much in the tradition of grandiose, cinematic music that gave us stadium-fillers like Bruce Springsteen and U2. Indeed, there are echoes of both and 'AntiChrist Television Blues' in particular is, like, *soooooo* Brooocey, it's not true. Which got me thinking in Carrie Bradshaw fashion: what does the future hold for a band like AF?
It's easy to knock U2 - btw: is it just me getting soft in me old age, but isn't Harry Enfield's falsetto "In the neem of love..." pastiche very bloody funny? - and with good reason. But up until the mid-nineties, they managed fairly successfully to balance the conflicting demands of being functioning artists and mega-buck generating stadium fodder. Similarly, the Boss has, with the possible exception of Bowie, proved the most adept of the big-name acts geriatrics like me grew up with at juggling those awkward balls; artistic integrity and popularity. And it is tricky - besides, what are the popular arts if no one likes them? Yet he seems to have been able to accomodate the need of his audience for the communal wallowing in the former glories of his panoramic, widescreen E Street Band music, with the quieter, more contemplative demands of his current muse.
Sure, it's not always successful - the post 9-11 torturings of The Rising (*bad* title, Boss - *B-A-A-A-A-A-D*!) offers perhaps the most glaring example of how bad things can get when you put the cart in front of the horse and allow audience expectations (The Boss just *had* to do the first 9/11 LP, I guess...) to override the artistic impulse. And yet there can be no doubt that along with Dylan and Waits he forms a crucial part of the great American triumverate of musician-as-writer - and that's 'writer' as in the guys you'd expect to write the Great American Novel. In fact, there's a case to be made (with Nick Kent like absurdity and neck extension, obviously) that those looking for the Great American Novel were perhaps doing so in the wrong place. It's all there in the music - the rootlessness, the wealth of characters, the dynamism, the empty richness of it all - the sheer *vastness* ferchrissakes. You can even find the greatness in amongst the dross - look no further than The Rising LP itself, which features one line worthy of its subject: "The sky's still the same unbelievable blue" (from 'Nothing Man')
But has the writing got better as Springsteen has moved further and further away from his Born to Run-era pomp and circumstance - or does it just seem more writerly, perhaps? A lot of people who otherwise love popular music get quite sniffy about The Boss (mentioning no names - Dorian from Readers Recommend, Tim...) but if they're honest, you need to have either an anaesthetised spine or actually be dead not to get a fizzing surge of adrenalin coursing up your back and on-end hairs at the back of the neck whenever the first 15 seconds of 'Born to Run' explodes out of the Thunderbird's dashboard. Even at his most bombastic and Meatloaf-with-knobs-on, it's great writing. Great writing. Period. Not just great rock writing. There's even one of those sublime misheard lyrics in what's probably his best-known song - perhaps the greatest misapprehension in pop history - when you think he's singing "baby I'm just a sad and lonely writer and I've got to know how it feels..." - which is a *way* better line than the printed 'rider', in my book anyroad.
And then, with Nebraska, things get even more interesting. What Greil Marcus referred to as the 'yes and the no' of Rock 'n' Roll seem to part the ways in the work of Springsteen after 1982. We get the bleak, desolation of Nebraska, then the alarmingly easy appropriation by Reagan of 'Born in the USA's post-Vietnam fury. Tunnel of Love is probably the closest the two strands have come to a reunion - but the radio-friendly synths and drum machines can't fully disguise the bleakness of the songs and the characters they portray. Then, The Rising excepted, the tone has been sober, the beat very much down. In the later songs, his own downhome sequence of waterlillies, drifting, contemplative, vast, Springsteen sings of young latinos poisoned by the drugs they carry in their guts, empty encounters with cheap motel concubines; Devils in the Dust is a long way from "Rosalita, come out tonight".
All of which has dragged us a long way from today's 'greatest band in the world', but if they are anywhewre near as good as everyone loves telling them they are, they may well need to make the same adjustments. Even two albums in, though the talent is undeniable and the songs strong and meant, one's inner voice can't quite be drowned out as it whispers, hopefully...."please....don't go *big* again this time...." This album, and I've only heard it once, so I'll comment more effusively in a leter post about its many merits, demonstrates that they are as effective when they don't "go big". The closer, 'My Body is a Cage' is hypnotic and epic in a less rushy way than their stock in trade euphoric vastness and reminds one of Tom Waits with it's loping tom toms and down-at-heel theatricality. They are good and will do more good things. But will they endure long enough to stage an Achtung Baby-style reimagining of themsleves. Could they chip away at their vast facade of sound to expose something as majestically bare and bleak as, say, Nebraska? (which is, btw overlooked and a seminal album for anyone who has an interest in the American folk tradition or the new Americana...)
It's less, I suppose, about Arcade Fire and more about what the business of music production will allow. What we, as listeners demand. In these times of empty rhetoric and duplicity, it's reassuring to hear an honest voice, poised perfectly between David Byrne and Ian MacCulloch talk singing to you, telling you it doesn't want to live in America anymore. But what happens when the message begins to be engulfed by the scale? That's when we'll find out, perhaps, if they are truly great...
L.U.V. on y'all,
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